Rez Gardi: A Lifelong Journey to Human Rights Activism

“Years ago, I had my first bottle of coke to celebrate that we were finally being resettled, from a refugee camp in Pakistan, to New Zealand. I had no idea what the world had in store for me.”

Rez Gardi’s life began in 1991, within a United Nations refugee camp in Pakistan. Escaping persecution from her home land of Kurdistan, she and her family faced the daily realities of life in a camp that, for the first six years of her life, offered little in the way of hope or future prospects. So, when they were offered the opportunity to resettle in New Zealand, her life took a complete turn. Several years later, Gardi became the first female Kurdish lawyer in New Zealand. She recounts, “Being a refugee really motivated me to be successful. Given my background, I was driven to make a difference in the world from a young age. While law was an inevitable career path for me, I was also very focused on getting involved in humanitarian work and helping others find a voice.” Committed to ensuring that the plight of settling New Zealanders is easier than it was for her own family, Rez is currently working on a range of projects for refugee youth in New Zealand through the charity she established, Empower, and is also a co-founder of the Center for the Asia Pacific Refugee Studies and founding member of the Global Youth Advisory Council to the UNHCR. She highlights, “I was the first in my family to be able to go to university and I’m very conscious that my parents gave up everything to be able to give me this opportunity. Helping marginalized people access justice is part of my DNA as I came to understand from an early age what the denial of justice meant. It’s what drives me to do what I do every day.”

Miss Independent: What inspired you to pursue a career in human rights?

Rez Gardi: With my family having fled persecution in Kurdistan, and personally being born into a refugee camp in Pakistan, my interests in Human Rights sparked from a young age. First hand, I witnessed the denial of human rights and lack of justice before I recognized what those concepts signified legally. Professionally, those interests were nearly always omnipresent given my Kurdish family’s history of fleeing genocide enacted by various dictator regimes, facing persecution given our Kurdish identities, and standing up for Kurdish rights. My parents are both human rights activists and my grandparents were Freedom Fighters, so that also really influenced my ingrained passions for Human Rights. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, I traveled back to Kurdistan at the age of thirteen. Given my parents had fled as political activists, I had not really been exposed to Kurdish culture or identity prior, and since my family was spread throughout the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, I had to cross three different borders simply to spend time with my aunts, uncles and grandparents given they were physically in the territory of different countries. A lot of questions arose. In the Kurdish region of Iraq, people were openly speaking Kurdish, and the streets were filled with signs written in Kurdish. I was very aware that I was in a Kurdish region. However, when I went to the Kurdish region of Turkey, everything Kurdish-related (e.g., CDs, clothes, etc.) was confiscated at the border. I was confused and angry. I had no idea why they were confiscating all of these things from me. In Turkey and Iran, my mom and grandma continued to remind me not to speak Kurdish openly, because it was dangerous. These experiences had a profound effect on me, and I remember returning to New Zealand wanting to understand Kurdish history and why Kurdish people underwent such discriminatory oppression. That’s when I came across the entire history of Kurdish people: the wars, genocide and ethnic cleansing. I felt so powerless. Yet given my extensive lineage involved in Human Rights, I began to consider a career in Law as a means to effect positive change. I constantly remind myself of my own story as the reason behind why I persist in fighting for the rights of marginalized people today; that very lack of rights has inflicted grandiose pain on many generations of my family.

Miss Independent: Given your family’s rich political history alongside your current work in prosecuting the perpetrators of ISIS’s targeted genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, do you ever feel unsafe?

Rez Gardi: Yes. When I first decided to do this work, my parents were very concerned. Any parent really would be, with their child going to work on the front lines in an unsafe conflict zone. Moreover, ISIS is one of the most dangerous organizations in the world, and I’m literally fighting against them. At first, I assured them that my work would be completely incognito, but suddenly, my name was advertised across countless BBC headlines, in every language, talking about the work I was doing. I do feel a bit scared from time to time. We’re talking about ISIS. It’s neither a single person nor a political party. It’s a terrorist organization; a non-state actor that’s unpredictable, and very much still on the rise, despite everything that’s happened. I know that my work is not risk-free; I’m not naive in that regard. At the same time, I think it’s important to have these issues in the public limelight, because while I could do this work undercover, without media attention, we would not have the appropriate coverage to hold people accountable. On an international scale, we need people to be aware so that they hold their governments accountable. In this case, we have many foreign ISIS fighters imprisoned in Iraq and Syria, and unless Western Countries are pressured to take back their fighters, they will not be held accountable. Without awareness, there will be limited accountability.

Miss Independent: In the vain of raising awareness on this front, could you gloss over the ongoing trials of the Kurdish people, especially in relation to Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria?

Rez Gardi: Essentially, Kurdistan has not existed as a state in modern history. We’re partitioned across the formal borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Estimates are difficult, because most of these countries don’t even include Kurds as an ethnic group in their census, but it’s suspected that there are approximately 30 to 40 million Kurds around the world today. We’re the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. The situation has historically been quite horrific across these four regions for Kurds, as they’ve undergone ethnic cleansing, massacres, assimilation campaigns and genocides. Any efforts to advocate for Kurdish rights or self-determination have been stifled pretty extensively through executions, imprisonments or disappearances by various governments across the regions. In Iraq specifically, the Anfal Campaign under Saddam Hussein’s regime resulted in the killings of 200,000 people by chemical weapons. At the same time, there have been many assimilation campaigns. In Turkey specifically, it was illegal to speak Kurdish or have a Kurdish name until 2005; just fifteen years ago. While the laws have changed, the practices have not necessarily; just this past week, people were killed for speaking Kurdish in Turkey. The Turkish government refuses to recognize Kurds as a minority ethnic group, as they would then be obliged to provide them minority rights and protection. They ignore the existence of Kurds, and refer to us as “Mountain Turks.” Nonetheless, there have been several resistance movements throughout the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. For example, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, have demonstrated great prominence as a resistance movement, yet they have been unjustly and ironically been classified as a terrorist organization, highlighting the institutional and structural racism that exists against the Kurdish people. That is, the PKK was a direct result of the oppression stemming from the Turkish government, and now, the labeling of the organization as a “terrorist organization” encourages the killing of even more Kurds. In Iraqi Kurdistan, we have an autonomous region, but on an international level, we still abide by the Iraqi federal laws and exist within Iraq’s formal borders. Iraqi Kurdistan is definitely the most progressive of the four (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey) in terms of Kurdish rights.

Miss Independent: In the realm of this conflict as a whole, how are women impacted differently?

Rez Gardi: From the incredibly horrifying aspect of the conflict, sexual violence and rape are used as weapons of war against women. It’s a method of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and is recognized as such in International Law scholarship. However, in terms of the positive progress for women’s rights resulting from this conflict, women have emerged as great leaders, elucidating the bravery and strength of females, which is especially impressive in the context of the Middle East where the progress for women’s rights really lacks. Kurdish female fighters have continued to serve as icons in the fight against ISIS. Interestingly, ISIS believes that if their men are killed by women, the dead would not be considered martyrs or Shahids, so the Kurds began to place more women on the front lines during times of conflict. As a result, ISIS fighters would run in the opposite direction, not wanting to be killed by a woman, as according to this common belief, they would not go to paradise as a Shahid. The Kurdish women today are recognized for their astounding valor.

Miss Independent: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your Human Rights career thus far?

Rez Gardi: It’s always the people. The most rewarding aspect for me is the ability to sit with someone who’s been through such traumatic experiences by the hands of another human being, and yet they still have the bravery, strength and determination to effect positive change and impact so that others don’t suffer the same. It’s so profoundly inspiring that despite how much they’ve been through, they’re still willing to speak up to protect the rights of others around the world. It’s a constant testament to how resilient human beings can be. You’d think that when someone goes through such traumatic experiences, they’d simply break down, and rightfully so. Yet the fact that they rally everyday, and use their experiences to change the world for better, is what consistently drives me to do more personally.

Miss Independent: What has been the most challenging part of your career in Human Rights?

Rez Gardi: Before I went into Human Rights law, I was a corporate litigator. The hours were long and the work was stressful. In Human Rights Law, it’s stressful in a different way. Speaking regularly with victims of such vile crimes, secondary trauma is a very common effect among human rights lawyers. At the end of the day, we’re all human. We’re not robots, as much as they tell you to separate your work from your life. Sometimes, as you listen to the stories of the various victims we work with, you just want to break down and cry. I need to consistently remind myself to practice self care in this regard. But still, while the experiences are hard for me to hear, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the person recounting their own horrors to me.

Miss Independent: What piece of advice would you give to those wishing to pursue a career in Human Rights?

Rez Gardi: Be flexible and spontaneous. Take opportunities as they come. This is not the type of career where you can have a ten year plan, as much as us lawyers like to plan ahead. This field is very small, and networks matter a lot; it’s great to meet people that are like-minded. Take one opportunity, and see where it brings you.

Miss Independent: What do you do to relax and take care of yourself?

Rez Gardi: I love to play netball, even though it doesn’t exist on this side of the world. Otherwise, basketball is fun, and I’m always looking for someone who wants to shoot some hoops or watch the NBA. I also love to read and relax by bodies of water. I’m not near a beach anymore, so anytime I find myself by a lake, I always try to take a dip. It’s also so important to read for pleasure, especially when you’re reading about ISIS in your day-to-day.

Miss Independent: What’s your favorite fiction read?

Rez Gardi: You’re going to laugh at this, because as much as I stressed reading for pleasure, this is still a heavy read. Ironic, I know, but it’s my favorite. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Miss Independent: Who’s your biggest role model?

Rez Gardi: Leyla Zana. She was the first Kurdish woman to be elected to serve in Turkish parliament. Unfortunately, she was never able to execute her role a member of parliament given her first speech in parliament was spoken in Kurdish, while speaking Kurdish in Turkey was very much illegal. She was arrested thereafter, and spent a great deal of her career as a political prisoner. As much as I’m personally trying to stay out of prison in my career, her bravery is so inspiring. She’s a fearless leader when it comes to demanding better rights for Kurds in Turkey.

Miss Independent: What’s your favorite travel destination?

Rez Gardi: So many! It seems like so long ago that I was able to travel. I have been to lots of places and have ended up in many places unplanned. By chance, I ended up in Iquitos, which is in the northern part of the Amazon. I absolutely loved it.

Miss Independent: It’s been so fun chatting with you and learning about your journey in Human Rights. I am amazed by your bravery, and cannot thank you enough for the tenacity you demonstrate when it comes to advocating for the marginalized among us. Take care of yourself and speak to you soon!

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